Many hospitals across the US have recently decided to restrict visitors because of the H1N1 influenza epidemic. My hospital joined with the other hospitals in our region to adopt the same visitor policy and communicate one message to the public. Having all the hospitals adopt the same practice at the same time is a great idea. It reduces confusion for the public and makes the information easier to remember.
Why restrict visitors, why do it now, and why restrict certain people? This is a unique time for hospitals. We are in the middle of the largest influenza epidemic we have seen in a long time. A new influenza virus emerged last April to which few people are immune, and it will sweep across the country unchecked until we can get more people immunized. Most patients in the hospital right now are not immune, they are very susceptible to this infection, and if this virus started to spread in a hospital, it would spread quickly with devestating results. The highest incidence of infection is in children, and children are more contagious than adults when they get influenza. A person with influenza can spread it from the day prior to illness until a couple days after they recover. We call those periods the prodromal period and the convalescent period. Bottom line; people can spread influenza without knowing it.
Most hospitals have some visitor rules. Some rules vary by the type of patient; the visitation rules are often different in critical care units than in non-acute care units, different in maternity units or in cancer units, etc. Some hospitals screen visitors for contagious disease before you can go in.
Why are hospitals restricting certain ages of visitors? We chose to exclude people below age 15. Other hospitals are using 16 or 18. I don’t think it makes a big difference what age restriction you choose. The incidence of H1N1 influenza seems to drop after age 15, and people over 15 can probably be screened and their behavior controlled better than younger children. We went with the lowest age that we thought would protect our patients.
When a person is sick or injured and hospitalized, the support of their loved ones is very important to their healing. We want our patients to be supported as much as they need, and we want their supporters to feel welcome and to participate in the patient’s recovery and care. However, if the visitor is carrying a contagious disease, it is better if they do not visit the patient in the hospital.